23rd Mar 2018


No fireworks, we're European – the EU presidential debates

  • Who won? This week's EU presidential debates lacked fireworks but not feeling (Photo: Euronews)

They were the first US-style televised debates for the EU's top job, and it showed.

On Monday (28 April) the candidates (not to mention the debate moderators themselves) were visibly nervous. The two most likely candidates to take the job as EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, put in underwhelming performances. In the case of Juncker, whose less fluent command of English puts him at an immediate disadvantage, this was perhaps not surprising. Schulz, meanwhile, was not in the combative form that we are used to seeing at EU summits.

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Neither were the candidates helped by fussy moderators who offered them little chance to go beyond soundbites. It was also a shame that Alexis Tsipras, the charismatic and sharp-talking leader of Greek leftist party Syriza, did not take part in either debate.

The second debate, live-streamed by Euranet on Tuesday (29 April) was debate Eurovision song contest-style, with journalists from 15 different countries being dialled in to pose their questions. But it was a more substantial debate, and the candidates were more relaxed, with ideological disagreements between Verhofstadt and Schulz on Europe's economic future, and the candidates trading blows on energy and immigration.

Those expecting a clash of political titans were always going to be disappointed. None of the four candidates come close to being from the 'celebrity' category of politician. Instead, what we got was an often earnest, restrained and – as a result – thoroughly European debate.

No fireworks

Although the Liberals' Guy Verhofstadt and socialist Martin Schulz were involved in most of the action, it was the Green candidate Ska Keller who was the real star of the first debate. She landed the first blow on a rival, arguing that "having been presiding over a tax haven in the EU" as Luxembourg's prime minister, Juncker would be ill-equipped to increase tax harmonisation across the bloc.

Juncker is vulnerable to such charges, knows it, and is easily provoked by them. It was a smart move.

So too was Schulz's defence of Keller, in front of an audience largely made up of students, against the charge that, at 32 years old, she is inexperienced – which got him the first applause of the evening.

And, importantly, the candidates did their best to avoid Brussels-institution speak.

In one response, Schulz remarked that "the self-empowerment of the Council leads to a system that is not compatible with the treaty" and he later referred to the need for "strong majorities at first and second reading", but apart from that the candidates did their best to avoid the jargon that too often numbs the senses in EU-based debate.

But none offered convincing reasons to vote and, although rising levels of euroscepticism were discussed in the first debate, with no sceptic or EU-critical politician on a podium this issue was the elephant in the room.

Another question that should be on everybody's lips is how many people outside Brussels were reached by the debates?

The reality is that only a small minority of Europeans will have watched either debate. Neither Euronews nor Euranet, who broadcast the two bouts, have large viewer ratings in the EU's large member countries, and none of the major national networks aired the debates.

In the social media count, Euronews reported that more than 47,000 tweets with the hashtag #EUdebate2014 were sent during the first debate. Not bad, but more than 10 million tweets were sent during the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, giving some illustration of how far these elections have to go in terms of entering public consciousness.

The pledge count

Although both debates were light on policy detail, all four candidates contributed to a steadily rising pledge count.

By the end of the second round on Tuesday afternoon, Schulz had committed himself to a common system of legal immigration for the EU, a micro-credit scheme for small businesses and an energy union (which Verhofstadt backs as well).

Meanwhile, Keller backed the idea of the EU funding a proportion of unemployment benefit, armed with the line that "austerity has destroyed the European dream".

Unsurprisingly, considering that his sister parties are in power in most of Europe, Juncker was the most restrained.

His support for a legal minimum wage across the EU, for governments to increase their development aid spending to 1 percent of GDP, and for the EU to co-finance the cost of refugee return programmes, were all couched in language that suggested he was speaking for himself rather than unveiling a manifesto.

Who won?

A snap poll by Europe Decides suggested that Verhofstadt, with 53 percent support, had performed strongest in the first debate and Juncker, with 9 percent, the weakest. That's probably being too kind to the former Belgian prime minister. In any case, the debates will almost certainly have little impact on how many seats the parties win on 25 May 25, still less on whether any of the candidates get the top job in the Berlaymont tower.

"This is the beginning," commented Schulz, when asked what he thought about this being the first election where there is an explicit link between May's elections and who gets the EU's top jobs.

That's true. But this experiment in transnational democracy (whether artificial or not) is unlikely to be repeated if EU leaders ignore the candidates on the podium this week and agree on the next Commission president via a back-room deal.


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